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Has Moscow Picked Wrong Moment To Pressure Czechs?

Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sign the missile deal in Prague.
Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sign the missile deal in Prague.
Just three days after the signing of an agreement between Prague and Washington on the basing of an antimissile radar station in the Czech Republic, Russia sharply reduced the flow of oil to that country.

According to Czech media reports, Russia's Transneft informed its Czech partner Unipetrol on July 11 that the export of oil this month will be reduced from 500,000 tons to 300,000 tons because of "technical difficulties."

A Unipetrol spokesman was reluctant to connect the disruption in oil supplies to the radar agreement, but Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg announced that the government is studying the situation.

At the same time, Vaclav Bartuska, the head of the Czech Foreign Ministry's Department of Energy Security, told journalists that the slowdown will not lead to shortages or price hikes. He said the shortfall can be compensated for by increased supplies from a German pipeline and noted that the country has a 95-day strategic reserve that it has already begun tapping into.

Bartuska and other Czech officials have declined to connect the oil slowdown with the antimissile agreement, despite Moscow's fierce objections to the U.S. missile-defense plan. They have, however, noted that the "technical problems" affecting the Czech Republic don't seem to have touched Poland, Hungary, or Slovakia, all of which are also supplied by the same pipeline.

But reaction in the Western press has been less restrained. "The New York Times" on July 12 published an article that recalled the example of Ukraine, which was the target of the Kremlin's "energy diplomacy" in 2006. The article also recalls that the same year, because of "technical problems," Russia cut off oil supplies to a Lithuanian refinery after it was sold to a non-Russian firm over the Kremlin's objections.

The article also draws attention to the words of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who said on the sidelines of the Group of Eight (G8) summit in Japan after being informed of the U.S.-Czech agreement: "We, of course, are not going to get hysterical about this, but we are going to think of some responses."

So, is the current cutback of oil supplies one of these "responses"? It would appear so. In recent years, Russia has repeatedly used its "energy weapon" against neighbors acting against its will. These cases include not only the instances mentioned by "The New York Times," but others against Georgia and Belarus as well. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov even declared such a right in one of his articles: "Russia is not practicing 'energy imperialism,' but it is using its natural advantages."

The goal of the oil cutback might be to move public opinion in the Czech Republic sufficiently to influence the vote on ratification of the radar agreement in the Czech parliament, which is expected next month.

The ruling Civic Democrats in Prague are certain they have the votes to ratify the agreement, and there currently seems little reason to doubt them. However, Moscow no doubt has taken note of public-opinion polls in the country that show most Czechs oppose the radar installation.

The pro-Kremlin Russian television channels are already giving vast coverage to the "mass demonstrations" in the Czech Republic against the planned radar station. The same protests, viewed from Prague, seem much more modest. Of course, the radar agreement -- as merely a bilateral accord -- does not require a referendum to come into force.

It is possible the Kremlin hopes that increases in energy costs driven by Moscow's hardball tactics will convince the Czechs of the desirability of maintaining good relations with Russia. However, the 40th anniversary of the Warsaw Pact's 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia is just around the corner; now might not be the right time for Moscow to get tough with Prague.

Victor Yasmann is an analyst with RFE/RL's Russian Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL